Photo courtesy the office of Rep. Lori Stone Photo courtesy the office of Rep. Lori Stone

The need for school masking isn’t just a health concern, says State Rep. Lori Stone (D-Warren), but also about avoiding last year’s unpredictability.

WARREN, Mich.—As the start of the new school year nears, what schools look like when doors open Sept. 7 is still being hotly contested throughout Michigan.

The uncertainty is seen along the border between two counties north of Detroit, Macomb and Oakland. Both counties saw protests Wednesday over their approach to requiring students to mask up in class. In Macomb, parents protested the fact that students weren’t being required to wear masks. In Oakland, the protests were opposing that same safety measure.

Watching from that increasingly significant border, State Rep. Lori Stone (D-Warren) is only focused on what would make students safe. As a former teacher, she thinks masking is the right approach. 

“We need to be mindful of the health and wellbeing of our students, our staff, and our community at large,” Stone told The ‘Gander. “I’m hearing concerns from my constituents, as parents, about the safety and health of their students and the potential for their children to spread COVID when they bring it home to family members.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has made it clear that no statewide decisions are likely to be made, leaving those decisions to county health officials instead. 

Doctors, Parents, and Teachers Weigh In on School Masking

Oakland County had announced an emergency order in light of the coronavirus’ Delta variant the night before Stone sat down with The ‘Gander for an interview. And Oakland is hardly alone. From Wayne to Kalamazoo, Michigan counties’ health officials have been making the call to enact emergency safety measures. 

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“Our top priority is keeping students in school for in-person learning,” Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter said in a statement. “Masking is one of the best defenses against increased transmission of COVID and higher hospitalization rates among kids. This order allows teachers to get back to educating our students and focusing on their success.”

And many parents, including those calling for the anti-COVID peotections in Macomb schools, agree with that view. 

“We do know that masks keep people safe,” Angela Gross, a Kalamazoo mother of two, told Michigan Radio. “We do know that it protects both the wearer and the people around the person wearing the mask. We know that a huge group of kids cannot get vaccinated because of their age. And we also know that people that are eligible for the vaccine—many of them have chosen not to get vaccinated.”

Or, as South Lyon family physician Dr. Srikar Reddy told The ‘Gander, everyone in a given community needs to be on the same page.

“When you’re deciding on one play, everybody participates in that one play,” Reddy said. “It’s not like the running back runs its own play.”

READ MORE: This Michigan Dad Saw His 13-Year-Old Son Battle COVID-19. He Vaccinated Him to Protect Other Kids, Too.

As a former elementary school teacher, that’s exactly the view Stone has as well. She taught young children and has tried to bring the educator’s perspective to the school masking discussion, which she said has often overlooked the concerns of teachers. 

She told The ‘Gander that what teachers like her look for in masking precautions is a stability classrooms haven’t had since the pandemic began. 

“The voices of a lot of our educators have not been included in many of these conversations,” Stone said. “This is about making sure students have an opportunity to return to in-person instruction without disruptions, as well as being provided in a safe and healthy manner. We need to make sure decisions are being filtered through that lens.”

But the fight over those safety measures has been as bitter as most fights over pandemic precautions over the past year and a half. 

Taking Risks With Michigan Students

As has been the case since last April, efforts to prevent spread of the coronavirus have met vocal opposition and open defiance. 

For instance, Climax-Scotts Community Schools in Kalamazoo County has declared its intention to openly defy COVID prevention measures ordered by the local health department. That declaration prompted a stern rebuke from Kalamazoo County Health Officer Jim Rutherford.

“It’s a law,” he told WWMT. “Beyond the fact that this population doesn’t have access to the vaccine, we’re in the middle of a pretty significant outbreak in Kalamazoo County.”

Rutherford highlighted a unique concern schools face: vaccine availability. Coronavirus vaccines presently aren’t approved for children under 12 years of age. And since vaccinated adults can be carriers of the virus, infected children could act as a major point of viral transmission. When community transmission rates are already high, as they are through much of Michigan, not taking safety precautions is a dangerous proposition. And not just for community health, but to avoid a repeat of the last school year.

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“The schools that did a really good job, adhering to those strategies, they were able to maintain and navigate as best they could,” Rutherford said. “We had very few significant outbreaks and reduced school closures last year.”

The Climax-Scotts School Board backed down and agreed to follow masking precautions Thursday.

In Macomb County, which did not enact a masking policy, preventing that uncertainty falls to the collective action of parents, says Stone. And the advice kids should follow is familiar to most Michiganders after over a year living with the coronavirus. 

“Our children 12 and under do not have the option of a vaccine for protection,” Stone said. “So first of all we need to make sure there are multi-layered mitigation measures in place because that isn’t a choice for them. That includes masking as well as a combination of social distancing to the best extent possible; making sure there’s adequate ventilation; making sure our students and staff are practicing good hygiene; and participating in testing, tracking, and tracing as much as possible.” 

That, she says, is critical to keeping students healthy and in classrooms this year.